One of Warminster’s proudest moments in history finally has a true home with the grand opening of the John Fitch Steamboat Museum. Dozens of invited guests celebrated the dedication on Saturday of the one-room museum that honors the work of the man who invented the first steamboat in 1785.
Members of the Warminster Board of Supervisors, Bucks County Commissioner Charlie Martin, State Rep Bernie O’Neill and State Senator Stewart Greenleaf were among the VIPs who watched as Warminster resident and history buff Gary Hanley, dressed as John Fitch, cut the ribbon and officially opened the museum to the public. The building will be open every second Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. and is also available for scheduled group tours.
The story goes that Fitch was walking home from the when he began to ponder why carriages couldn’t be propelled by the power of steam. He began working on protoypes of a steamboat engine in a workshop belonging to a friend in Warminster and testing them in a stream behind the General Davis Inn in Upper Southampton.
After several attempts, his most successful version launched on the Delaware in 1790 and became the first steamboat used for commercial purposes. The 6o-foot watercraft traveled nearly 3,000 miles in the summer of 1790, offering thee round trips a week between Philadelphia, Trenton and Bristol.
Despite the technological marvel of the steamboat, Fitch’s enterprise failed to make any profit, forcing his financial backers to pull out of the project. He moved to some land he had acquired in Bardstown, Ken., and drank himself to death in 1798. In 1807, the first profitable steamboat had been developed by Robert Fulton, and had long received most of the credit for the invention.
“For so long, John Fitch’s achievements have gone unnoticed and unrecognized,” said Andrea Sutcliffe, an author who wrote about Fitch in her 2004 book, STEAM, The Untold Story of America’s First Great Invention. “Now his accomplishments have a home.”
The museum was renovated from an old carriage house that stands on the grounds of Craven Hall Mansion, on the corner of Street and Newtown roads. It took a little more than a year for retired Navy man Otto Blavier to perform most of the construction, including new walls and he electrical work. Professionals replaced the floor, roof and doors, leaving the rest for Blavier to do in his spare time.
“You need to see what it looked like to really appreciate how good it looks now,” said Blavier, clad in his homemade Colonial garb.